Kitchen Dog Theater launched its 27th season this week with the regional premiere of Ironbound, Polish-born playwright Martyna Majok’s sobering look at the plight of immigrants in America. Ironbound follows immigrant Darja (Karen Parrish) during three periods of her life.
The play begins with a scene between Darja and Tommy (Max Hartman). Darja waits at a depressing, dirty bus stop (Clare Floyd Devries’ set design is dead on) as Tommy tries to persuade her to let him drive her home. In their conversation, it's revealed that Tommy has been unfaithful more times than he’s willing to admit.
Darja treats the encounter like a business deal. She’s willing to take him back if he will give her cash. She is desperate to find her missing son Alex, who is alluded to as a loser who’s run off, and not for the first time.
A nonlinear timeline plays out, separated by blackout scene changes that would feel too long if not for the hypnotic, surreal sound design by John M. Flores, the unseen star of this production.
Darja’s life is terrible. There’s just no way around it. We meet her first love, Maks (Seth Magill), in a flashback; he's adorably reckless and unable to imagine a life in which he isn’t pursuing something that satisfies his soul.
Maks is a singer and dreams of joining the blues scene in Chicago. Darja won’t go. She needs money. She reveals her pregnancy to Maks. As the color drains from his face, so do his dreams. He won’t be deterred and eventually leaves without her.
We meet Darja again during another dark period in her life. She gingerly steps around a broken chainlink fence, revealing her black eye and swollen jaw. She’s 34 and escaping her abusive second husband.
During this act, Darja meets Vic (Doak Rapp), a young, independently wealthy man who's eager to help her. She refuses his money time and again until he finally passes $100 to her so that she can get a hotel room rather than sleep on a tire behind the bus stop.
“Fuck this bus,” is the song Maks creates in the flashback scene with Darja, drawling it out in his stilted English — props to dialect coach Anne Schilling for working magic with these actors — and playing along with a harmonica.
As they lovingly embrace and dream about their new American life, Maks still yearns for more. Darja says she’s followed him to this country; that should be enough. She only wants a car.
Ironbound is a close look at what it means to be an immigrant in America. The American dream sounds glamorous, implying anything is possible with some elbow grease. What we see in Darja’s case is that when you don’t speak the language well, know anyone or have gainful employment, life is not about dreaming — it’s about survival.
Darja treats her love interests like transactions, bargaining for a better deal. When the Newark factory where she was employed closes, cleaning houses is her only option. When that falls through, she’s homeless and still trying to locate her son.
Darja is frustrating. She seems to operate from a baseline of “no": no to Maks, no to Vic, no to Tommy. Why wouldn’t she want a better life in Chicago? Why wouldn’t she want a hotel room for the night, or a ride home? And then that absurdity kicks in. Darja is trying to keep herself and her child, at various stages of development, alive.
When Maks leaves her, pregnant and alone at the bus stop, she refuses his last bit of cash. We already know where her life is heading, and it’s bleak. It’s also a smart commentary on the way some women care endlessly for others while neglecting themselves. Parrish embodies all of that heartbreak in an adept, nuanced way.
Back to the sound design. It sets a real tone for the bus stop; highway sounds are intense and always whirling. This is a place people really aren’t meant to be walking. The isolating desperation of spending your life waiting for public transportation is made clear.
Parrish portrays Darja as an enigma in many ways, making it difficult at times to understand what she really wants. Her life is so bleak and desperate that the most basic things are luxuries. A scarf that she wears on her head as a young newlywed becomes a pillow over the tire.
Tina Parker’s direction lets the characters breathe with each other, as they should. Nothing feels forced. Hartman shines as Tommy, who's childlike, immature and charming. He brings a needed dose of humor to a bleak story.
Majok was born in Bytom, Poland, and grew up in New Jersey and Chicago. It stands to reason that she’s well acquainted with these characters and cities with large immigrant communities. These characters are working with a backstory that is much more than just what we see as the audience.
Majok gives the characters faces and motives that we can all understand: To love and be loved, to worry about a child and to want security are not abstract ideas. Ironbound is a subtle, sad story that gives just the faintest glimmer of hope at the end and more to think about as the seats empty.
Ironbound, through Nov. 12, Kitchen Dog Theater, Trinity River Arts Center, 2800 N. Stemmons Freeway, $20 and up, kitchendogtheater.org.